“May I Help the Following Customer?”

I was recently in a chain store in the middle of Manhattan with a long line of customers waiting to check out. When the person paying had finished gathering their belongings and left the register, the clerk called, “The following customer?” Woah! I thought. Don’t we say,’next customer’ in English?

I thought perhaps this was just an anomaly, or maybe a New Yorker-ism. Or maybe English was a second language for the person speaking, and it is hard to understand the subtle difference between the uses for these synonyms.

But no – it was not an anomaly and, no not just a New York-ism, because about a week later I heard someone use the same phrase in the same way in another region of the country.  And -no both sales associates using the phrase were native English speakers (one a native New Yorker, and the other born in Minnesota –English was the only language they spoke).

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it is not incorrect, grammatically to say ‘the following customer?” But to my ear, it should be “the next customer.’

I remember the column William Safire used to write entitled ‘On Language’. Oh, where is Bill when I need him, I lamented. He would support me on this!

Bill not being reachable, I searched definitions online and analyzed the difference in the definition myself. “The following’ refers to the next in time, whereas “next” refers to a person or thing coming immediately after. 

Ok, maybe my friends are right — I spend too much time in the 1850s! I love reading Jane Austin novels and ‘hearing’ the way they spoke.  Sure, I do love how flowery speech in English used to be, but I understand that language is a fluid thing. The thing that bothers me is, other than new combinations of words for new technology, (online, website, internet) we don’t seem to be enriching the language or increasing our lexicon, we seem to be shrinking it, and ‘dumbing it down’.

Pshaw! ‘Tis merely a truculent observation, you may discharge or distain it as you see fit.

  1. © Jane F. Collen October 18, 2019  IndexCardCure.com™ 

One thought on ““May I Help the Following Customer?”

  1. You are right Jane. Words are the vehicle, albeit not a perfect one, that we use to make our thoughts, premises, questions, descriptions, feelings, hypotheses, needs, and wants be known to whomever we direct said words, including ourselves. I am almost obsessed with finding the most accurate words to put forth my thoughts, as does Shanker. Much Love to you and to Jess, Linda

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